This week, we follow in the wake of a public awareness campaign to bring one child home, and end up charting the damage. Cool & Unusual Punishment is a member of the Nerd & Tie Network! Find more shows from N&T at their website in the show notes. As always, thanks for listening!
Episode 10 Reference Materials
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Tyler: You're listening to Episode 10 of Luginbilled, our special serieson the music man of Eau Claire. My name is Tyler, and sitting in the investigative journalism War Room Bunker, my co host, Jodie Arnold. How are you?
Jodie: I'm great.
Tyler: 10 big ones. We've literally spent the entire year on this story.
Jodie: It's getting very close to that. By the time we will have finished this series, possibly, it will have been a year. It's a long time.
Tyler: There's a lot of uh, lot of waters to probe. Speaking of, you have a new story for us.
Jodie: I do, and this, speaking of water is a story about ripple effects.
Jodie: Yeah. You didn't even know you were setting me up, did you? For the purposes of this story, we are changing the names of the parties involved, as it does involve a minor who currently goes to the school that I'm going to be talking about. There just felt like a lot of good reasons to in this particular situation, to change some names. So for the purposes of this story, um, the person I interviewed is named Travis.
Jodie: So the quick back story, and trust me, we will get to where Joe Luginbill gets involved. But we do have to rewind, like, three years before Joe gets involved for a bit. Travis gets divorced in 2014, and he and his ex wife have a son. At this point and into 2016, where the story actually takes place, Travis' son was with him an average of 5 to 6 nights a week, so he had pretty primary placement, you know, of the boy. So Travis has a job in which he works from home. He can do it anywhere. And in 2016, where the story really starts like I mentioned, he thought it would be nice for his son to get some international travel type experiences. And he applied for, and he gets Italian heritage citizenship for both he and his son. And that's the sort of citizenship you get, as you might imagine from the name, by having Italian heritage, significant enough to qualify you for this sort of thing. So this was done in conjunction with several conversations with Travis's ex wife. All of this is notarized, and things were put into place to allow this to happen. She was agreeable to it happening. It was documented in the divorce decree, which I do have a copy of. Trust me, it's important for everybody listening to understand how okay this was to be happening, is why I'm gonna be sharing these kinds of documents.
Tyler: She lived in the U. S.?
Jodie: Yeah, and she lived not far away from here. The Eau Claire Chippewa Valley area. I will share this document, but it will be heavily redacted because, like, we can't have case number and things like that. But there is a line eight of additional text that occurred on 8/1 of 2016 to the court. A letter by Travis dated 7/28/16 regarding intent to move with minor child, with copy of letter to his ex wife and receipt for certified mail. So we've got that. It should also be noted that during these conversations, Travis had offered his ex wife the opportunity to move with them, and she wasn't interested in that. She was in school. She wanted her son to have the experience and decided that was not something for her. I actually do have, just for purposes of supporting that, a exchange of text messages between Travis and his ex wife. And I wont read all of it here, but we will share more of it in the show notes.
“Also, check your email.”
He had sent her an email, which was sort of in conjunction with the court documents that I just mentioned.
“Check your email. I wrote you some details about the Italy trip.”
She responds, “Either way is fine. I agree with you about the travel. I don't need to be involved in any trips. Thanks for caring.”
And, uh, “no questions? You're okay with plans as they are?”
“Yes, I'm okay, As I said. Anything to make our son's future better.”
Jodie: So in January of 2017, Travis moves to Italy with his son and his ex wife, instantly regrets it. It had been agreed that she would notify the school of her sons move to Italy. And she didn't do that. So while Travis was on a layover in Germany, he called the school to make sure that they had been notified of the move.
Tyler: So he hasn't even made it to Italy yet. This is-
Jodie: Yeah, well, they land in Italy, and he gets a text message from the principal of his son's elementary school. His ex wife had gone to the school and told the principal that Travis had kidnapped their son. I don't know what the appropriate way to handle, If I'm the principal of a school and some parent comes to me with a situation, especially something as severe as this, I would like to think I would probably recommend that the authorities get involved. It just feels a little bit weird because the principal sends Travis a series of text messages. The principal goes from accusing him of kidnapping to saying that Travis' wife did know that he was going to Italy with his son. But that quote “it was only supposed to be for a few weeks.”
Tyler: Okay, Just so I'm clear, she goes to the principal and tells him this. Principal, I assume it's not something, an accusation you take lightly, but he clearly has Travis's phone number. He has the ability to follow up with the accused kidnapper, I assume, doesn't ask like what's going on?
Jodie: It's almost kind of like a stream of consciousness type set of text messages because, you know, the accusations change in the course of the text messages, because that's what Travis's ex wife is communicating and he's like he's getting this information. He's instantly texting it. She's still there when he's sending these messages. So the narrative is kind of shifting because that principal is not waiting until the story is finished to evaluate it and decide what to do with it. He is just communicating with this father as the ex wife is there, telling him all of this stuff that's going on. He then tells Travis that he wasn't going to unenroll his son from school. The principal didn't know at that time it had already been done because Travis had notified the school that he wouldn't be attending for an extended period of time.
Tyler: This isn't something that principal could have typed into a computer and immediately seen, he unenrolled him months ago.
Jodie: I don't, yeah, I don't know. Um, I suppose when you're in this sort of moment, because of what the consequence of not leaving his son enrolled was, that he would then be counted as truant. Yeah, um and so I don't know if that was just supposed to be some sort of threat.
Tyler: Yeah, and I don't know how important it is to the rest of the story, but just on its face, this seems like wildly unprofessional behavior from the principal too, like, ex wife is in the room, and he's like, just on the phone too, like it seems like some Jerry Springer gossip mediator is the position he’s taking.
Jodie: That is how it registered to me when I heard this story. It should also be noted that later on, the ex wife recants her story about Travis kidnapping her son. But not at this time. There is a time in the future where she kind of wants to erase that. All of these things ever happened. But at this point in time, as far as the principal is concerned, he has a student kidnapped from their school. So Travis's ex wife doesn't stop there. She files a report with the Eau Claire Police Department. Travis gets a lawyer because as these things are occurring, he, of course, is immediately concerned that this is going to escalate into something, which it does escalate into something. So his lawyer reaches out to the Eau Claire Police Department regarding this in January, February of 2017. That report went to a DA that's now recently retired. It was determined that the charges of kidnapping were not founded. But instead of instantly closing that case, it was shelved until 2020. It got forgotten about, and when the D. A. was retiring, they were like, Oh, what's this case?
Tyler: It's a real clown car of characters in the story so far.
Tyler: This whole story from the start already. It's like, Oh, you have the papers that prove all of this is silly, like it should only take five minutes to clear this up. It's just escalating.
Jodie: The ex wife asks Travis for them to return home at that time his son was adjusting well, he really enjoyed his experience. And so Travis feels like, you gave me permission to do this. My son wants to do this. I have paid all of this relocation money. I'm not just moving back home because now you're mad about it, about something that you agreed to do and is notarized and in the court record. Well, that's when shit really starts to hit the fan. Suddenly, Travis gets an email from a parent at his son's now former school. There's a website that has just surfaced seemingly, and it's called Bring Travis’ son's name home dot com. We will share screenshots. I didn't print them off because there are photos that we need to black out and stuff like that.
Tyler: So a campaign, or at least a website that would purport to have have a campaign to-
Jodie: It's a campaign. Yes, this really snowballs like super super quickly.
Tyler: Yeah, I guess I can see why you were quick to, like, point to all the notarized formal documents that made this okay, because that's the difference between him being a good guy or a bad guy in this story... is those documents.
Jodie: Yes. And also, admittedly, it is unusual for a dad in a divided household to be the primary caregiver, and it is hard for some people to understand and accept that he was the one providing and still providing care most of the time for his son. So there was just this default reaction, probably based on some bias like that, combined with the sad story of a mother.
Tyler: Right. He applied for and got Italian heritage citizenship. It's not a guy who is taking off in his Camaro with his young son.
Jodie: Right. Which happens a lot. But it also should be noted that you need to do your research before you put up a website-
Tyler: Apparently, you don't.
Jodie: Okay, so that's a great point.
Tyler: So, Bring uh, Sanford. Can I call him Sanford? Bring Sanford back home goes online.
Jodie: On it, there are a bunch of photos of Travis's ex wife featured with a much younger version of their son. Photos from when they were still married, and the son was much younger. Nothing on the page explicitly says Travis has kidnapped his son. The page says things like, as you will see, they were working with quote “local, national and international authorities on the case.” That's not entirely incorrect. Because Travis was investigated by Italian investigators, it was eventually determined that no wrongdoing had been done. This was after paying thousands of dollars to an Italian attorney to translate court documents showing that this move was permitted. The website goes up, and there are several teachers at Travis' former elementary school who want to join the efforts. They're told by the principal that they are to remain neutral in this matter.
Tyler: He said this while wearing a “Bring Sanford back home” T shirt.
Jodie: Yeah, so Travis is like, what is this website? And when he starts looking into the website deeper, there's only one name outside of the members of his family which-- also, his parents were named because his dad had went along on the trip to help them get established and then was going to come home. Like, just help them move in. And while Travis is getting settled in to working, get things going with his son.
Tyler: His dad is named as like, a co-conspirator?
Jodie: Yeah, both of his parents, as a matter of fact.
Jodie: The screenshots of the website mentioned that they are working with a local nonprofit. When you go to the donate page on this website, you saw that all of the donations were being directly funneled through the Luginbill Children's Foundation. At that point, it stated that it was going towards a fund that quote “helped abused and exploited children.”
Tyler: Uh, I'm guessing there's not an “exploited and abused Children's fund allocation” in the Luginbill Foundation based on what we know. So that means like that was invented or described off the cuff. Which means it was strictly written for this case.
Jodie: Yeah, which kind of comes up. So Travis sees this. He sees that they have gone so far as to create, they've teamed up with somebody. They're going to get donations together for whatever. He decides to go to the Luginbill Children's Foundation site. Because at this point, Travis has no idea who Joe Luginbill is. No idea what the Luginbill Children's Foundation is. Goes to the site. He wants to know, basically, what the hell is going on? While he was talking to me, he said that as he looked at the site trying to figure out what's going on and why this foundation is involved in these efforts to bring back his son, who has not been kidnapped. He notices there's no substance. There's no indication of the work they do on the site. He said he felt like they were using his son as a poster child for a cause that they could, “Oh, look, I'm going to get involved in this case. I'm gonna put my name on this thing. It's going to get some attention. And then perhaps this could be something that we do with the site.”
It should be noted that at this time Joe Luginbill was on the school board. He wasn't the president at the time. That happened in 2018, but it is against district regulations for sides to be taken in divorce and custody battles for anyone in the district. But because Travis wasn't in the district any longer, that got sidestepped. If you recall from previous episodes of our show, there is also that divide between personal affairs and official business of school board members. I think the line is a little bit blurry. It feels strange to me that somebody on the Eau Claire school board would have his nonprofit involved in a case where there is now a former student of the district. So you see, there's a few...
Tyler: Just to be clear, I don't know what the school board's responsibilities include, but this elementary school would fall under the purview of whatever it is Joe does on the school board. Like this is part of his domain as school board member?
Jodie: Yeah, it's part of the Eau Claire area school district. So there are a few loopholes-
Tyler: Feels like a lot of muddy water. Yeah, a lot of blurred lines in between, like, where his toes should be getting dipped, and-
Jodie: Well, Travis is pretty upset by all of this, and he emails Joe on February 3rd of 2017 at 3:05 a.m. Which probably had to do with the time change difference. And this does get cut off. But he sent me the screenshot of the submission confirmation so that I could know for sure this wasn't just a draft email or something like that. “This is a forwarded message regarding the bring my son home campaign for which you received donations. Okay, first off number one, I moved to Italy with written permission from my ex wife entered into the courts. If you don't believe me, please check with Wisconsin Circuit access. The public file on our divorce indicates he gave her notice of this move last summer.” Well, he gets no response to that. Then Travis tries to call Joe, and he doesn't get an answer. He leaves a message Joe calls back about 20 minutes later, Travis identifies himself and asks, Why do you believe I'm exploiting and abusing my son? He proceeds to explain what was really happening. He offers to have his lawyer reach out to Joe to better explain what was happening. From a legal standpoint, it was a very civil conversation. Joe immediately apologizes. Then he frantically tries to pass the buck, in Travis' estimation, by saying quote, “I'm a little too trusting.”
Tyler: That was Joe's excuse?
Jodie: Yeah, he was a little too trusting of the people involved in this website.
Tyler: That is the worst excuse ever when you're dealing with, if Joe fully understands the mistake he's made and who he's talking to to be like, “you know, the problem is that I'm too nice” is such a shitty thing to say.
Jodie: Well. Immediately after that conversation, Joe's association with the website gets removed. Travis starts getting angry messages from parents associated with the site. Angry that he had, quote “threatened Joe with litigation”, which was his lawyer offer. Joe had told Travis that he was too trusting of the information he'd been given from the parents. But then Joe turns around and tells all the parents that Travis has like an O. J. Simpson gallery of lawyers, and that he's going to go after him with litigation, which is not-
Tyler: I’m trying to picture who they think they're dealing with. This, like man, who took his son and fled the country, has like an army of lawyers, lawyers so good that even though their case is just, they made a children's foundation back down.
Jodie: I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that Joe requests his name be removed from the site, but not because he is too trusting of them and that they're wrong but that he doesn't want to be part of that. What's curious about what happens with this website is the donation link affiliated with the website only lasted for 48 hours. It was a very short period of time between the Luginbill Children's foundation jumping on board and Travis reaching out and Joe very quickly, like playing a Homer Simpson into the bushes. There were hundreds of members of this website during this time, and Travis was told that no donations had been collected during these two days.
Tyler: He's told this by Joe?
Jodie: By the parents. Somebody affiliated with that website tells him in the aftermath off all of this that they were told that no donations had ever been made, because the Luginbill Children's foundation discontinues their brief involvement. You have to think to yourself, hundreds of people have collectively joined in on this cause. And you've seen that the amount of money that go-fundme can raise in two hours. You mean to tell me there's not $1 that the foundation is able to give these people during the span of time in which they were in the donation sponsor? There's not $1 donated. I imagine the conversation went at some point, “Okay, so you're not going to affiliate yourself with this anymore? How much did we raise and donations while you were affiliated?” And because I imagine it's a beast of a thing to set up donations, you know, like that time especially. I don't think, you know-
Tyler: Surely somebody had the ability to set up a fundraising after Joe pulls out.
Jodie: Well, I don't think it was just because the Luginbill Children's Foundation was already like, Oh, hey, let's just find a nonprofit and they can collect the donations for us. It is important to note that even though Travis didn't know who Joe Luginbill was at this point in time, it would be a big shot in the arm to have your cause supported by the Luginbill Children's Foundation and Joe Luginbill.
Tyler: And do I even need to bother asking that the Luginbill Children’s Foundation also promised that they would be supportive in efforts that were vaguely outlined and not really explained and like, everyone was on board with it. But then, did Joe, what was he going to do? I’ll leave that for the bonus episode. That was on my speculation as to what the Children's Foundation was planning on doing if they weren't just being a bank for all the money.
Jodie: Travis’ feelings on all of this are that Joe kept the money that was raised in those few days, we can't prove that. But those are his speculations. Certainly we can agree that Travis is not the first person that has told us that they feel very strongly that Joe has kept money from something or another. A few days after Joe's affiliation with the site disappears, the site itself has taken down.
Jodie: Which then again, speculation, makes it appear to me that without the Luginbill Children's Foundation being connected to it, the weight of the site doesn't hit quite the same. I don't know that for sure, but the site goes away.
Tyler: Suffice to say, it was only up for like what a week? If Joe was on board, off after a few days and then a few days later, the sites down, this was just a flash in the pan thing?
Jodie: Yes, but the damage-
Tyler: I’m sure, has been done.
Jodie: Has been severely done.
Jodie: Travis and his son come back in the summer of 2017. What happens is, his son is missing his mom, more than either of them realized would be the case. And so Travis recognizes that his son is suffering. You know, and his son was probably six years old at the time. Travis recognizes it, says, you know what? This isn't working out. It's best for everybody if we just moved back and it's fine, so they come back. The neighbors don't talk to him anymore. His son loses his two best friends. They're completely socially isolated from anybody at the school. Parents would name drop Joe as being a trusted source on this one side of the issue, even after his name was no longer affiliated with it. It was like, well, you know, Joe Luginbill had been on board with that, and it was like, who am I to go after Joe Luginbill, having that kind of name? Then makes Travis look like, who am I supposed to trust, you or Joe Luginbill? You're on one side, and Joe Luginbill was on the other side, so who do you think I'm going to go with?
Tyler: That is a really remarkable illustration of how much power his name apparently had if he wasn't the source of this campaign, like he dipped in to lay his seal of approval, dipped out, and that's all it took. Now it's Joe’s word against some, wow.
Jodie: Yeah. And how recklessly Joe involved himself in any type of custody situation. That stuff is complicated. If you are a non profit looking to dip your toes in some notoriety waters, you better really understand the case before you decide we're going to be the ones involved with bringing this kid home, and it's going to make us look really good.
Tyler: I mean, not only irresponsible on the front end, but if you sincerely cared about the things you purport to care about, you think it would be very important to set the record straight after you stop supporting that campaign. When Travis comes back, you know, and people are using Joe's name as evidence, doesn't he have a responsibility to correct the record? To not do that is incredibly irresponsible.
Jodie: Well, he had the chance to do that when he withdrew his name from the site, and instead Travis gets angry messages from parents. So obviously-
Tyler: Yeah, the parents who did not see their money that they donated to the Children's Foundation, got it.
Jodie: So you know, Joe, in an effort to not tell the people that had recruited him for this opportunity in some fashion to keep from telling them that you're wrong about this. He just gives some narrative where he's been threatened to, you know? So, of course, Joe wasn't going to do anything after the fact. You know, this is, what, the summer of 2017. So he's already not paying one scholarship company.
Tyler: Yeah, I got it written down, trying to speculate on what his long term plans were with this fund, like, how are you already in a position where you're not going to give the money back after two days? It couldn't have gone anywhere, right? Like, was he going to do that after a year of collecting?
Jodie: Yeah, like, oh, in this year's time, I suppose. Okay, we'll save it.
Jodie: Travis returns. So now summer's over, takes his son back to school. When he returns at the son’s now, once again elementary school. The principal would try to engage with Travis when he was walking the son to school, or walking him into his classroom. He would accuse Travis of having quote “negative interactions with families associated with the school and associated with the efforts.” He wouldn't give specific details on exactly what that meant, Travis does say that when he would get confronted by parents, he would push back on it.
Tyler: Right, regardless of how those interactions went, what is the principal doing, like dipping in to be like, Hey, Travis? What is his place in this conflict that he thinks-
Jodie: Well, Travis goes as far as to request a meeting with the principal in which Travis brings along a third party teacher from a local school to sit in on the meeting as a witness. Records the meeting, has on recording that the principal tells him, even after all of this has occurred that he believes Travis tried to kidnap his son. What Travis says during the course of our interview is that quote “It was just very unusual for a principal to take sides so persistently. In a case like this.” I think perhaps we could save for the bonus episode if you wouldn’t mind marking it, I'm not naming the school. I'm not naming the principal. I do have questions about what the effect of Joe’s involvement had on the principal’s views on this? The principal is no longer the principal at that school. So his son’s built new friendships. Life has moved on to some extent, but his parents still no longer attend the neighborhood association meetings to this day. And largely all of this was due to the power of a website with Joe's name, though briefly attached to it, the damage done without the right information, is pretty disturbing, I think.
Jodie: I mean, at the end of all of this is the fact that a group of misinformed parents doesn't necessarily surprise me. The president of a nonprofit foundation deciding that they're going to get involved in this, feels like a lot more vetting should have been done on the side of the foundation before ever putting their name to it. But of course, who would have been that, it was just Joe's family. You know, this isn't like a board of directors, like in other places where, when I've worked for nonprofits, and if you were to do a venture like this, it would definitely have to go to the board of directors and be vetted. You wouldn't just be like, “Oh my God, this sounds awful and like a great opportunity for us. Let's get involved.”
Tyler: Yeah, it, uh... I'm not surprised. You know, that concerned parents would get it wrong and be moved emotionally by, like, bad information. People like the principal or Joe are in positions to change the narrative, and it seems like both of them were informed, early enough on, that they were wrong. I don't know. I guess I wasn't around when this happened. Like, I don't know what the vibe was that you couldn't possibly be the guy to take the side of the supposed kidnapper. It seems very clear cut, legally, that nothing wrong was happening. But if everyone agrees that that's not the case, you’re just left out to dry.
Jodie: This in particular, is a great example of people getting very moved by something. The narrative generally goes that if somebody is going to kidnap your kid in a custody type issue, it would be the dad. It all just very much appealed to something emotionally for people. Added bonus being that Joe Luginbill was involved. The funniest part about this is that people had all these feelings, this guy kidnapped his son, and now look here he is back, still with his son most of the time. What kind of person kidnaps their son and is allowed to still have him, like, 5, 6 days a week? Still, to this day. But, you know, the principal is harassing this guy.
Tyler: Yeah. He came back, brought his kid back to the same school. What is the principal trying to get out of him? Like, “Admit it. We caught ya.” Like, what do you think?
Jodie: Yeah. “Admit it. You're still with your son.”
Tyler: And Joe, never through the arm of the Children's Foundation, never, like, had a statement about this. It was just his link on the website came and went? God. For him to be on the school board, that's like the worst person to have on your school board, to be taking gossipy information and leveraging it for your nonprofit.
Jodie: Yeah. I’m not sure, he could have been approached from a parent, to the foundation, saying “Would you be interested in getting on board with this?” I don't know that for sure. For the bonus episode, I can pull up the paperwork on the incorporation of the foundation, what its intentions are, which definitely aren't this. So tune into that. How do you become a subscriber on Patreon?
Tyler: Patreon dot com slash cool and unusual punishment. P a T R E o n dot com is where you can pledge a few bucks and get early episodes, and the bonus episode that we’re about to record, and all the previous ones, and help support us pay our hosting bills. So stay tuned for that, and thank you for listening.
Tyler: Luginbilled is presented by Cool and Unusual Punishment. Research and interviews by Jodie Arnold. This episode was edited and mixed by me, Tyler Haas. Muusic by Emilio Marone, Yuvgeni Sarabrykov, Goldie Shine, Xavly, and Yoav Alyagon. Special thanks this week to Travis for speaking with us. If you enjoy the show and want to support the work that Jodie and I do, please take a minute to rate and review us on iTunes or Spotify or wherever you listen. You can also pledge a few dollars on our Patreon page. Just search for our podcast at P a T r e o n dot com. If you are already a supporter, you have our enormous thanks. This show is a proud member of the Nerd and Tie Network, a coalition of Wisconsin produced shows that you can find at nerd and tie dot com. Our website, where you can find links to the material and documents we referenced this week, is Eau Claires Best Podcast dot com.
Tyler: By the way, I started a new website called “Bring Joe’s victims home,” I'll tell you about it later.